Bird Feeding with George Petrides

Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.

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Every spring, we hear from readers dealing with birds attacking windows, car mirrors and other reflective surfaces. To their credit, these folks seem more concerned for the birds than personally irritated. Birds that engage in this aggressive behavior (often robins and cardinals) can injure themselves so why do they ram their heads, beaks and bodies against these shiny surfaces?


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Simply put, these birds are responding to rising hormones. It is nesting season (or will soon be in your area) and birds are genetically wired to protect territories to assure that young produced are theirs to raise, Natural selection has always favored animals which are territorial and aggressive in defending food and other necessary resources.

 

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These birds see their own reflections and believe they are seeing potential invaders. So they begin to furiously attack “the enemy.” They usually do not quit until they think they have won or until their mates have laid all their eggs. This is thought to triggers a reduction in hormone levels. Unfortunately for us, this can seem to take forever!

To help your birds, try eliminating the reflection. Cover the shiny surface with a paper sheet, newspaper or brown paper. Some folks have luck soaping their windows (outside surfaces only!). If this is not feasible, then wait, enjoy the moment and hope your bird will win the “battle” before hurting himself seriously.

A baby bird on the ground always presents a dilemma. It’s not true that handling a bird will cause it to be rejected by its parents or other birds. On the other hand, sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all.

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Young American Robin

Any bird that is feathered and mobile – even if it is flightless – is best left alone. Young birds that have left the nest on purpose or by accident are often moved to a safer place by their parents. By interfering, we may actually decrease the chance of a successful move. Yet we can reduce potential hazards (such as pets).

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Young Northern Cardinal

If you find a featherless bird that has obviously fallen out of the next, the best thing you can do is to simply put it back. Even whole nests that have fallen from a tree should be put back as closely as possible to its original location, and then left alone. The parents will usually return, and their care of the young is most often the young’s best chance for survival.
Care of young birds should be undertaken only by licensed wildlife rehabilitators. These wonderful volunteers can also help you decide what to do if you find an injured bird.

Father to daughter. Neighbor to neighbor. Great uncle to grandniece. Teaching birding is best done casually. Classes can teach you some basics, but most bird-identification courses will focus on teaching you how to learn, not on giving you a large volume of data to learn. Many courses will teach you about the tools of the trade (binoculars, scopes and field guides) and how to use them. For anything else you want to know, you’ll have to depend on yourself, a birding buddy or two, and the birds themselves.

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For most people, the question that sparks their interest is “What is that bird?” Half an hour with a field guide can usually answer the question, but once the door of knowledge is open, more questions come flooding through. What was that yellow bird? (An American Goldfinch). Why doesn’t that Downy Woodpecker have any red on its head (It’s a female) What was that bird which looked just like a female cardinal with a black beak? (It was a young cardinal) These questions, and hundreds more like them, have traditionally been asked over the kitchen table or the backyard fence. Over the last decade though, there are more and more places to ask and answer questions about birds and more ways to teach (and to learn) birding.

 

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If you’re reading this, you might, for example, look though this www.birdzilla.com web site or the backyard field guides (eastern and western birds) at www.wildbird.com or the National Bird-Feeding Society at www.facebook.com/birdfeedingsociety.

From an article by renowned wild bird feeding scientist Dr. Aelred Geis (deceased) in the 1990s


“Banding sometimes helps us solve mysteries. For example, it was thought that fewer House Finches visited Washington, D.C. area feeders in winter because the birds migrated south. Through banding studies, we found that finches simply concentrate more heavily on feeders in summer than in winter. This was demonstrated in two ways. First, a large number of birds banded in summer were present at feeders in winter. In addition, we failed to receive any reports of distant recoveries.

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The proportion of bird populations that dies each year is indicated by the rate of decline in band recoveries each year after banding. Most of the species we see at our feeders, like other small birds, die young. After only three years there are few, if any, recoveries. In contrast, recoveries of larger birds such as eagles are distributed over many years.

Banding studies have also been used to monitor the impact of hunting on duck and goose populations. When hunting increases the mortality rates of a species beyond its ability to reproduce, populations decline. That was the situation recently for Canada Geese on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In areas where where hunting was less intense, populations increased. In this case, banding also indicated that the population had not simply moved. Banding plays a vital role in helping understand population changes.”

From an article by renowned wild bird feeding scientist Dr. Aelred Geis (deceased) in the 1990s.

“Banding sometimes helps us solve mysteries. For example, it was thought that fewer House Finches visited Washington, D.C. area feeders in winter because the birds migrated south. Through banding studies, we found that finches simply concentrate more heavily on feeders in summer than in winter. This was demonstrated in two ways. First, a large number of birds banded in summer were present at feeders in winter. In addition, we failed to receive any reports of distant recoveries.

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The proportion of bird populations that dies each year is indicated by the rate of decline in band recoveries each year after banding. Most of the species we see at our feeders, like other small birds, die young. After only three years there are few, if any, recoveries. In contrast, recoveries of larger birds such as eagles are distributed over many years.

Banding studies have also been used to monitor the impact of hunting on duck and goose populations. When hunting increases the mortality rates of a species beyond its ability to reproduce, populations decline. That was the situation recently for Canada Geese on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In areas where where hunting was less intense, populations increased. In this case, banding also indicated that the population had not simply moved. Banding plays a vital role in helping understand population changes.”

The bird that carries the sky on its back…reminding us of a heaven which we had forgotten. –Henry Thoreau, 1852.

The Eastern Bluebird crisis led to a closer look at the well-being of its two western cousins. Secure in its high-altitude home, the turquoise Mountain Bluebird seems to be faring well. But the Western Bluebird, closer in habitats to the eastern, has similar woes and needs the same level of help.

The “foot soldiers” of this crusade are the “bluebirders”, who place nest boxes and monitor them for results. They are advocates who gladly take the bluebirds’ side against predators or competitors.

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A raccoon or rat snake climbing a pole to snatch eggs from a box must contend with guards and traps, perfected over years of experimentation. “Bluebirders” may remove House Sparrow nests and even trap the Sparrows – a practice some find discomforting.

To ensure the bluebird’s survival, its human allies unapologetically play favorites. Clearly, aesthetics is an important factor behind this passion to care for bluebirds. However, the aggressive human intervention that saved the Eastern Bluebird may prove the only hope for other species now slipping toward extinction.

The bird that carries the sky on its back…reminding us of a heaven which we had forgotten.

Luckily for them, the three North American bluebird species live up to Henry Thoreau’s tribute way back in 1852. Humans have been smitten by their beauty since colonial times. So, when one of them, the Eastern Bluebird, fell on hard times, people quickly noticed and tried to help.

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The 18th Century was a good time for the Eastern Bluebird which flourished well south of the St. Lawrence to the Gulf, and west to the Rockies. But with the introduction of that pugnacious Old World duo, the Starling and House Sparrow, the more timid bluebird was out-competed for natural nesting cavities by these aggressive intruders. The Eastern Bluebird’s decline was in motion.

The bluebird nesting box (which mimics a tree cavity) has been long recognized as a remedy. In 1934, it is said that Thomas E. Musselman made ornithological history by establishing the first bluebird trail of 1,000 man-made nesting boxes in Adams County, Illinois.

Nonetheless, the bluebird’s plight grew worse as rural habitat was lost and orchards were sprayed. By the 1970s, the Eastern Bluebird population had fallen by an estimated 90%.

Now the good news! Since the founding of the North American Bluebird Society in 1978, this downward trend has been reversed by the systematic placement of tens of thousands of nest boxes by sympathetic and concerned human “landlords”. Today, Eastern Bluebirds nest where they have been absent for decades.

Watch this space for Part II of this amazing story of Eastern Bluebird survival through human intervention!

 

During winter, chickadees and titmice may flock together and are often seen flitting back and forth from cover to your feeders at the same time. Titmice, which are larger than chickadees, dominate certain feeding niches chickadees might otherwise occupy. But the advantages of being part of a flock may compensate the chickadees for loss of feeding area.

Its fun to observe the different feeding behavior of the two species. While both species will often take a seed and retire to a more secluded area to feed, chickadees seem more comfortable cracking open the seed at the feeder, while titmice almost always grab a seed and quickly leave. Do your chickadees and titmice feed the same way?

black-capped chickadee

 

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Flocking advantages include having more than one pair of eyes to locate dwindling winter food supplies. The death rate due to predation may also decline when birds flock together. Because most trees have lost their leaves, the woods are more open in winter, making these birds more vulnerable to predation. Flocking birds also share responsibility for predator alerts. Once an alarm call is given, the flock will often engage in a behavior known as “mobbing”. Instead of fleeing, the birds will gather together and harass the predator. Titmice seem to be particularly bold in their attacks and will dive at the predator or pull at its feathers or fur.

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Many birds, such as chickadees, molt at the end of summer. They may enter the winter with as much as 50% more plumage than at any other time of the year. They also have the ability to fluff their feathers up to increase the thickness of their insulation. However, long winter nights pose an additional problem for chickadees: fewer hours of daylight mean less time for foraging. To compensate, chickadees begin and end their foraging times at lower-light levels and intensify their use of reliably stocked feeders, so that their reduced foraging time is well spent.

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In fact, various studies have found that many chickadees that had access to feeders survived the winter. The difference in survival rates was most dramatic during months when temperatures dipped below zero.

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This is a common concern, often based on stories that have circulated for so long, they are accepted as fact. The idea that birds’ feet could freeze to metal perches is probably based on the fact that human skin or eyeballs (ouch!) will stick to sub-freezing metal.

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However, birds’ feet – unlike human skin – do not contain seat glands.   Their feet have no outside moisture and are perfectly dry. Take a look around this winter – you’ll notice birds safely perching on wire fences, etc. even during the coldest temperatures. So don’t worry about your metal feeder perches.

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Your birds need water as much in winter as any other time of year, and their need is greatest when natural sources of water are frozen. By keeping your birdbath filled with clean, fresh water in the winter, you provide a means for your birds to keep their feathers clean. Bathing in winter is necessary for them to maintain the insulation value their feathers.

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Do you place your birdbath dish upside down each fall to avoid freeze damage to the bowl? You might consider investing in a thermostat-controlled deicer or a heated birdbath or insert. These nifty accessories make terrific gifts for the birder you think has everything.

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...the term “bird-watching” was coined in its modern use by environmentalist and bird-watcher, Edmund Selous, in 1902. He (1957 - 1934) was a British ornithologist and writer (see this cover of one of his books). He used this new term to distinguish the new type of observational bird-watchers he supported from the old shoot-and-draw type, represented by his brother, the then-famous big-game hunter Frederick Selous.

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Selous started as a conventional naturalist, but developed a hatred of the killing of animals for scientific study and was a pioneer of bird-watching as a method of scientific study. He was a strong proponent of non-destructive bird-study as opposed to the collection of skins and eggs.

Our beautiful planet is home to billions of birds so their global mass/weight cannot be ignored – right?

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Locally, many of these birds take off at sunrise, lightening the weight of our planet by billions of pounds as they go airborne.
At the same time, birds across the world are landing at local sunset.

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These continuously opposing forces are thought by some to keep the Earth spinning on its axis – right?
 
OK, I admit that there could be a flaw in the science here but the landing/take off image is still a powerful one.
 
Amazing (almost)!

So how do woodpeckers do it?

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Northern Flicker and Red-bellied Woodpecker. © Marvin Stuauffer.


The unique way woodpecker beaks attach to their skulls allows them to chisel into tree trunks without damaging their bone structure. Their long tongues quickly extend to retrieve insects and then relax again around the skull.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Pileated-Woodpecker.jpgPileated Woodpecker. © Janet Furlong


Their toe arrangement, two forward and two back, allows them to cling easily to tree bark – and your feeders!
 
Amazing!

6. Reduce the amount of turf in your yard, and replace it with larger planting beds.

7. Provide water for your birds in a bird bath, small pond or other water feature.  Remember that moving water is a magnet for birds.

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8. Although it may be shocking to see a hawk taking a bird in your backyard, there is no need for alarm. High mortality rates are normal for songbirds and balance their high reproductive rates.

9. Select a variety of trees and shrubs for your yard to provide food, shelter and nesting sites for birds year-round.

10. Remember that birds prefer feeders that give them easy access to food. Some feeders designed to keep squirrels and larger birds away often receive fewer visits from small birds as well.  Always choose a bird feeder that has high bird appeal and, if necessary, use baffles or other methods to keep squirrels away.  Then make sure all feeding ports and feeding areas are kept clear of debris so your birds have easy access to food

Enjoy your birds!

1. Offer a food combination appropriate for the birds you want to attract.
2. Place feeders where you can easily watch them as part of your daily routine.

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3. Avoid seed mixes with inexpensive filler seeds that birds don’t eat.
4. Avoid seed mixes with higher-cost ingredients that don’t add value. For example, safflower is useful for discouraging squirrels (and Grackles) which dislike t. But when you mix it with seeds squirrels do like, that value is lost, and the safflower only increases the cost of the mix. Offer safflower straight, not mixed with other seeds for best results.
5. Offer foods in ways that reflect the preferences of birds you want to attract. For example, since most of the birds that eat millet are ground feeders, present your millet either on a platform feeder or directly on the ground (a cup full or so at a time).

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Adding a birdbath and dripper will help attract a variety of species, including those that do not normally visit feeders.

Next time:  5 more tips for bird feeding success!

Are Mute Swans really mute?

No, they aren’t really mute, but their voices are weak and seldom used except for grunts, menacing hisses, and snorts. During breeding season, they may utter puppy-like barks.

Which group of birds can turn their heads to the greatest extreme?

You guessed correctly, the owls! An owl can turn its head about 280 degrees and then quickly swivel it around in the opposite direction. (Barred Owl photo by Mike Horn)

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Which American woodpecker migrates the farthest?

The Yellow-belied Sapsucker migrates to the West Indies and south to central Panama.
Amazing!

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The first thing to do is clean out old nesting materials. On most nest boxes, you can access your nest box by swinging open a front or side panel. If that isn’t possible, your house may have a bottom panel that can be unscrewed.

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When all else fails, take a bent coat-hanger, hook the old nesting material and drag it out through the entry hole. Also, make sure all drainage holes are unplugged (another good use for your trusty coat-hanger). Then check for any squirrel or other damage around the entry hole. If the hole has been enlarged, you might check with your local wild bird specialty store for special metal plates that can be put around the hole to prevent further damage.

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You can then hose out the box and let dry.  Rehang your nest box so your birds have all winter to get comfortable with it or even use it as a roosting box since a number of species are known to huddle together in nest boxes for warmth.

We’ve all suspected that birds seem to prefer certain types of seeds over others. Chickadees, for example, love black-oil sunflower seed but don’t care much for millet. Tests have shown that thy do choose a particular sunflower seed over others. When a chickadee picks up a seed it judges the weight and size of that articular seed. They tend to select small, heavy, plump seeds and to reject (toss away) lighter, slender seeds. Apparently, they select those seeds that yield the greatest food value in return for the energy expended in opening the seed. Amazing!

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P.S. We once counted the actual number of black-oil sunflower seeds in a 50-lb bag. How many seeds do you think there were?  Hint: round to nearest 5000 seeds. Watch this space for the answer next week!

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Chickadee  feeder face. © Wayne Hoch Warren

If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’ve been bitten hard by our hobby! You may well have a hopper feeder, a Nyjer feeder, a suet feeder, a nectar feeder and a peanut feeder for good measure! Your birds are excited too but have you overdone it?

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No need to worry, my friends! Your feeders have different purposes, and each fills a different ecological niches, so to speak.  When it comes to enjoying our favorite pastime to the max, you’re right on track with the rest of us. Enjoy!

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